Book & Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Andrew Lloyd Webber saw Billy Wilder’s 1951 film, Sunset Boulevard, in the early 1970s but it wasn’t until 1991 that a version of the musical version was performed at Lloyd Webber’s Sydmonton Festival with Ria Jones as Norma Desmond. It was not greatly successful and was subsequently revised into the form we now know with lengthy runs in the West End and on Broadway. Now it is revived again for a national tour with Jones returning to the rôle of Norma
It’s 1940 and Joe Gillis (Danny Mac) is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter being quite literally pursued by creditors when he stumbles on the palatial home of Norma Desmond, a big Hollywood star of the silent era who, like so many others, failed to make the transition to the talkies and now lives a lonely existence with her devoted factotum, Max (Adam Pearce). On learning that Joe is a screenwriter, Norma invites him to edit her own magnum opus, Salomé, for her triumphant return to the silver screen. Joe realises that the screenplay will never get produced, but financial pressures lead him to work with Norma, even living in the house on Sunset. He becomes a kept man as her obsessions with both Hollywood and Joe grow. Joe tries to escape, but it becomes ever more clear that Norma lives in a fantasy world and when reality does intrude she can descend to the depths of despair and even attempt suicide, with only the care of Max keeping her on the right side of total insanity. This can’t end well.
The film is a powerful melodrama and this production continues in that almost gothic vein. It is assisted by Designer, Colin Richmond’s, fluid set design, that is a permanent homage to the bustling sound sets of a bygone Hollywood. Key scenes have tripod lights, cameras and boom mics recording them, the car chase that leads Joe to discover Norma’s mansion is staged as a back-projected film sequence, unused scenery sometimes clutters the upstage area, out of the way of the real action. Projections are used well to maintain the feeling of being somehow inside a film in progress. The illusion of being on a soundstage of the time is heightened by the colour palette of Ben Cracknell’s lighting design that ensures that the stage is filled with Technicolor hues even as pools of light direct our attention to the action. Transitions are smoothed by the use of large studio doors that slide to and fro, but these can obscure sightlines so that, while the main action is always visible, other pieces of business are sometimes hidden from some seats.
Jones plays Desmond with the right balance of ego and manic obsession. Her Norma is cast-iron – outwardly hard, immovable and immutable, she is also brittle and liable to shatter under pressure. As the show progresses and she becomes more dependent on Joe, Jones shows Norma’s desperate need and deteriorating mental state in her physicality and fragile voice – a fragility, incidentally, not shared with Jones’ own voice that soars and fills the Curve’s large auditorium, for example, during the iconic With One Look. Like Desmond herself, Jones’ performance is big, filling the stage with her presence. Indeed, Norma is such a big character that the others tend to be eclipsed with her around. Nevertheless, Mac’s Joe is a fine foil to her. Mac shows the inner conflict Joe feels – desperate to escape but subject to heavy-handed emotional blackmail from Max a well as being kept dependent on Norma for his livelihood. His fine voice is shown off in the dramatic song, Sunset Boulevard.
Pearce’s Max is an enigma at the beginning – clearly devoted to Norma, he polishes her fragile ego and shores up her mood as needed. Pearce’s rich voice is a joy to listen to, felt as much as heard at times. Molly Lynch as Joe’s other love interest, Betty Schaefer, is likeable and her character develops nicely over the evening. Just occasionally her voice may feel a touch shrill.
Visually and aurally, this production of Sunset Boulevard is rich, stunning and quite gloriously over-the-top and well-worth catching on tour.
Runs until 30 September 2017 and on tour | Image: Manuel Harlan